Philadelphia Police Suffer Loss, Scrutiny

Police in Philadelphia are having an especially tough week. First, one of their officers was fatally shot while responding to an armed robbery. Then, in an unrelated incident, three other officers were caught on videotape beating three suspects.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie. Coming up, traveling in the slow lane with the Sprocket Circus.

But first, it's been a trying week for police in Philadelphia. It began with the fatal shooting last weekend of Police Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski. A few days later a dozen officers were caught on videotape kicking and beating three suspects in an unrelated shooting. The week ended on Friday with a funeral for the fallen officer.

From Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Funeral services for Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski began early in the morning as a horse-drawn carriage brought his casket here to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.

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ROSE: Inside the cathedral, family and friends, politicians and police viewed the casket. Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey offered condolences to the wife and children of Sergeant Liczbinski, who was shot responding to an armed robbery last weekend.

Mr. CHARLES RAMSEY (Police Commissioner): It was a typical Saturday morning when he answered a call - a robbery in progress. He answered it because it was his job to do whatever he had to do in order to make our streets safe. He knew full well what the dangers were but he went anyway.

ROSE: Outside the cathedral, hundreds of law enforcement officers and ordinary people stood in the rain to pay their final respects.

Ms. SUSAN GUEST: It's the third police officer in a very short period of time that we've lost in the city. We just have to try and stop the violence and try to unite our city.

ROSE: As Susan Guest points out, Sergeant Liczbinski is the third Philadelphia police officer killed in the line of duty in the last two years, and his death seemed to set the department on edge. Late Monday night about a dozen white police officers were filmed by a news helicopter kicking and beating three black suspects in a shooting unrelated to Liczbinski's death.

The videotape made national news, with the Reverend Al Sharpton declaring the officers' conduct "worse than Rodney King." Chris Rooney of south Philadelphia says that's an exaggeration.

Mr. CHRIS ROONEY (Philadelphia Resident): And it's understandable that under that kind of stress they might break a little easier. But, you know, it's wrong. It's not what Al Sharpton said - it's not worse than Rodney King. It's not, you know, the worst thing ever. But it's still, you know, it's something that shouldn't happen in the city.

ROSE: But not all of the people who come to pay their respects to Sergeant Liczbinski were so quick to condemn what they saw in the videotape. Lauren Olney of northeast Philadelphia says the officers may have been justified in using force.

Ms. LAUREN OLNEY (Philadelphia Resident): You can never be too sure. They did what they felt was necessary at that time. And if that's how they felt, that they need to protect themselves, I mean, they're out there protecting us. That's all that matters.

ROSE: Although the city's murder rate has declined in the first few months of 2008, Philadelphia continues to rank among the most violent cities in the country. Still, Robin Norman of northwest Philadelphia says the officers shown in the videotape should be disciplined.

Ms. ROBIN NORMAN (Philadelphia Resident): They should be punished just like anybody else would be punished if they were jumping people in a gang as a gang. But I'm still for the police, I'm for the police, but sometimes we do get a little carried away in the things we do. I guess it's momentum and all that.

ROSE: The mayor has called the behavior of the officers on the videotape "unacceptable." Thirteen officers are off street duty while the department conducts a full investigation.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

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